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Interesting Car Designs

The railroads have always had a penchant for individuality. In the Lightweight Era, with the Pullman monopoly broken, they can indulge their tastes in the never ending quest for a better and more distinctive service to attract the patrons. Here are a few famous examples of these remarkable cars.

In 1934, the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & North Western each announced reduced schedule times on their Chicago to Milwaukee runs. Within weeks a range war erupted on the fiercely competitive Chicago - Twin Cities route. Burlington was soon dragged into the brawl, weighing in with their new "Pioneer Zephyr" on the Twin Cities run and placing orders with Budd for the "Twin Zephyrs".

Milwaukee Road's response to this escalation is the first of the "Hiawathas". Milwaukee has always had in independent streak, operating their own sleepers well into the 1920s and building many of their own cars in their West Milwaukee Shops. They had been experimenting with a new design for a lightweight chair car. Now they pushed into full production with 50 units of several car types: 12 of them for two new "Hiawatha" consists and the remainder for general service.

While these were under construction, they placed orders with Alco for a pair of enormous streamlined 4-4-2s - the first streamlined steam locomotives in America. By May, 1935, everything was ready and the "Hiawatha" made its debut.

The illustration above shows the unique parlor-obs built for these trains: cars which have come to be called "Beavertails" for their sloping rears. The "Hiawatha" cars are truss carbodies built on a girder deck. There are no skirts and the contour is smooth and low profile, which gives them a remarkably lean look. The styling is a uniquely Milwaukee Road blend of ultra-modern and traditional, with arched windows, portholes and panel doors reminiscent of the Varnish era.

Externally, the cars ride on the road's unique Nystrom trucks, developed by Karl F. Nystrom, their Chief Mechanical Officer. The underframes carry a minimum of gear and the carbodies are painted Milwaukee's colorful orange, maroon and gray.

Internally, facilities are spartan, but comfortable, with reclining parlor seats and two restroom-lounges. The decor features wood veneer and colorful floral print upholstery. There is no food service on these cars (in fact, the trains have only limited meal service - consistent with a short haul day run).

The 1937 "Hiawathas" were a resounding success, and the Milwaukee quickly added a second lot of cars. These 1939 cars differ from the 1937s in having horizontal ribs on the sides. The "Beavertails" have also been copied: the 1939 cars having a curved crest on the rear sloped deck.

In 1935, the New Haven Railroad turned its attention to the Lightweight issue. New Haven has little use for long haul sleepers. Their forte is fast, frequent short haul and commuter service - which, in turn, means coaches.

New Haven is one of the major passenger operators. Their Mechanical Department knows a few tricks about car design and the long term potential for replacing hundreds of aging Heavyweights gives them real clout. So when they approached the Osgood Bradley car company, of Worcester, Mass, the officials of Americas oldest carmaker (now a part of Pullman - Standard) listened attentively.

What emerged is a series of cars that are both distinctive in appearance and sophisticated in design. The carbodies are a truss design made of new lightweight steel alloys. The low profile cross section is tubular: turtle roof, tapered sides and skirts. The windows and doors are flush mounted and there are few protrusions. This technology would reemerge 30 years later in the Metroliners, which are practically identical in concept and application.

The first cars built for the New Haven weigh a mere 50 tons - a third less than a Heavyweight long haul coach. With their 4 wheel roller bearing trucks and low wind resistance, motive power requirements are substantially less. Well pleased with the result, New Haven ordered 50 of the 84 seat coaches, painted a pleasing Hunter Green with silver trim, and put them on the better New York to Boston trains.

The design made an impression and Osgood Bradley began receiving a steady trickle of orders for a variety of car types: including several coach configurations, cafe cars for the NH, combines and coaches for SAL (which operates them on the "Orange Blossom Special"), rare baggage/RPOs, coaches and coach/buffets on the Bangor & Aroostook, among others.

The railroad trumpeted these cars in their advertising as "modernistic yet sane" - doubtlessly a conservative slap at the new Motor Trains - and they have been well received by the ridership. But what really assured their immortality is that A.C. Gilbert, the prominent educational toymaker from New Haven, Connecticut, soon produced S Scale models of the coach and baggage/RPO. So popular are these models (the first Lightweight cars made in model form) that the real cars have been known forever after as "American Flyers".

The American Flyers reappeared after the war in an improved version with fluted siding. Only the New Haven ordered these new ones, but they bought them in quantity; substantially reequipping their premiere passenger fleet. Fluted cars include coaches, parlors, cafe and dining cars (which have 6 wheel trucks), an interesting baggage/lounge/buffet that features drawingrooms and "day roomettes", and (for the "Merchants Limited") a pair of round end tavern/lounge/obs.

Any road coming up from the Deep South via Washington D.C. has a problem: the route across the Potomac from Arlington, Va. leads through a tunnel drilled under Capitol Hill: and this tunnel is too small for dome cars. Nonetheless, domes are all the rage in the postwar years, and Seaboard Air Line is not about to let its premiere Florida coach train, the "Silver Meteor", offer anything less than the best.

So their Mechanical Department people got together with Pullman and what emerged are three sleeper-buffet-lounge cars that have to be the most remarkable "domes" of them all.

Following the lightweight practice of mixing services in a single carbody, these "Beach" series cars feature 5 double bedrooms, 4 of which are paired and can be combined by opening a divider between them. Unlike the prewar bedrooms, these have enclosed toilet annexes.

Public facilities include a bar (which is rated as a buffet even though it does not serve meals) and the roomy 21 seat lounge which makes these cars unique. The roof has been partly glassed over and the lounge windows have been extended upward to the roof line. The result is a nearly-dome car vista that can fit through the tunnel to Washington Union Station. No other non-dome passenger car has come anywhere near this proportion of windows- with the possible exception of the "Skytop Lounges" of the "Olympian Hiawatha".

In keeping with the Florida motif, the lounge is decorated in a light, airy "Florida theme" with rattan window shades, seashell pattern carpeting, tropical flower arrangements in the divider at the forward end, soft pastel earthtones and Danish Modern furnishings. Interestingly, there is only one attendant assigned: he runs the bar during the day and makes the bedrooms up while the passengers are in the dining car.

These cars do have one problem, however: that enormous glass area really soaks up the Florida sun. The air conditioning systems never quite seem to keep up.

Landing the contract to build the "California Zephyr" was a huge feather in Budd's cap. This is "the" premiere train on the Overland Route - interestingly enough, fielded by the traditional "second team" of Burlington, D&RGW and WP. The total contract, for 70 cars in 6 complete sets, did wonders for Budd's cash flow. And the quality of the trains that money bought did wonders for Budd's prestige.

In return, the railroads received some of the finest passenger trains ever built. Budd is noted for individualistic car designs, and the CZ gave them the perfect showcase for their dome cars and sleeper innovations. Here we see one of the 18 dome-chair cars. There are also six dome-round end obs in this order, and, shortly thereafter, 6 dome-buffet-lounge-dorms.

Budd has a different design philosophy than Pullman. Budd carbodies have only shallow skirting and the roof comes down to the top of the windows in one continuous piece, eliminating the letter board. All this, plus their preference for big windows, gives Budd cars a lean, leggy look as compared to Pullmans.

Internally, the car has two seating sections. The passengers each have a reclining chair with footrest and an individual reading light. The long standing problem of window vs. chair alignment has been solved by making the sides of the car as near to a continuous window and can be accomplished. The builder has also taken care to position the seats in relation to the windows: an innovation in car design. Note that the short end is the front of the car.

In the center, under the dome, the floor dips down to just above the rails and the passengers must use steps. The success of this feature has paved the way for the Superdome and Hi-level cars. The area under the dome has two large restrooms (it seems women have finally achieved social equality on Budd cars, as the restrooms are equal sized).

Toward the rear of the car, the floor steps up again into the aft seating compartment. At the rear (vestibule end) there are various equipment lockers and a jump seat for the Porter.

While these are chair cars, a journey in them is a comfortable and economical experience. The seats recline and the Porter will supply a warm blanket if desired. Passengers may roam freely to the diner and various lounges, or may take a seat in the dome (a fascinating place, especially on a stormy night). There are large restrooms where one may freshen up. Passengers on these cars do not experience the tedium and discomfort of the earlier coaches. These cars are only slightly less comfortable than a Parlor car, and likely as good as a roomette, at a lower price.

And last: we return to where we started with one of the truly unique passenger car designs. The Milwaukee Road has long been noted for its excellent scenery; particularly on the Pacific Extension, which traverses several mountain ranges. When the road's premiere western train, the "Olympian" was reequipped and renamed the "Olympian Hiawatha", they naturally wanted a distinctive observation car for scenic viewing.

What Pullman came up with is an ingenious variation on their standard boat tail observation car. The lower part of the rear end, up to just below the window line, is standard in all respects. Above that, an open framework wraps around to create a bubble. The areas between the frame members are fitted with glass, resulting in a lounge that is nearly 90% transparent.

The bubble design, with windows running clear up to the top, is well suited for admiring mountain scenery. The view one gets sitting in one of the lounge seats and watching the right of way whip past and into the distance is hypnotic.

For such an exotic piece of equipment, these cars are surprisingly drab in their appointments. The lounge is minimally decorated in what seems like a slap-dash Art Deco: having little more than a few chairs and sofas with only one table section. The carpeting is a dark monotone (the forward end of the car has rubber tile on the floor) and there is no food service or bar. Not the sort of accommodations one expects to find on the Olympian!

Ahead of the lounge, 8 double bedrooms are fitted. These are the new type with the enclosed toilets. Note that there are four designs of bedroom: one with the traditional couch, a second with a roomette-style folding seat berth, and two more that are mirror images of these. This arrangement has finally solved the problem of getting the toilets near to the center of the car and out of the way of the underbody gear. An interesting feature of these bedrooms is that the upper berths drop directly down from the ceiling rather than folding down from the wall.

At the forward end of the car is the one public restroom and a section for the Porter. This section is crowded in between two storage lockers, with more lockers above and below, and covered by a privacy curtain. The Porter has to climb several steps to reach this berth. Not surprisingly, most of them detest it and use an unoccupied bedroom, if available.

Externally, we see Milwaukee's traditional portholes and the Nystrom trucks, which were designed by their Mechanical Department supervisor. Note that the window for bedroom 5 has a movable sash so it can be opened for loading stretcher patients. Note, too, the roof hatch near the vestibule for access to the air conditioner system. The cars are painted in Milwaukee's classic maroon and pumpkin orange, with black roof, brown underframe and trucks.

Six of these cars were built for "Olympian Hiawatha" service and 4 more (with the same Skytop bubble end but a Parlor configuration) for other trains. As Milwaukee Road passenger service is winding down, these cars have been sold to the Canadian National, where they run on the premiere "Super Continental".

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North East Rails  Clint Chamberlin.
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Current update: 8/23/99